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The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea

The Language Politics of English Fever

in South Korea
Doobo Shim and Joseph Sung-Yul Park

While it has become trite to comment on the forces of global change, globalization is not simply about economy, technology or culture. When Appadurai
defines globalization as a tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization, we can easily supplant cultural for linguistic.
Today, English is increasingly established as a global lingua franca, and nonnative English speakers such as Koreans are preoccupied with the English
learning fever. The main claim of the paper is that the English fever should be
seen neither as blind desire towards the glorious commodity of English nor as
cheerful appropriation that nativizes the language of the Other. Instead, it is a
phenomenon that is firmly grounded in local sociopolitical contexts, yet
extends the global hegemony of English onto Korean society. Relevant to our
account is the framework of postcolonialism. This paper shall examine the
English fever in Korea as well as revisit the hegemony of English in the world.
Keyword: language politics, English fever, globalization, postcolonialism,
jaebeol (chaebol), Korean education

* This research has been made possible by the Research Grant from Sungshin Womens
University, Seoul, Korea.
Doobo Shim is Assistant Professor in the School of Culture and Communications at
Sungshin Womens University, Seoul, Korea. His publications include Hybridity and
the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia (2006). E-mail: mediapoet@gmail.com.
Joseph Sung-Yul Park is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at
National University of Singapore. He obtained his Ph.D. in Linguistics from University
of California, Santa Barbara. His publications include A Reference Grammar of Wappo
(co-authored with Sandra A. Thompson and Charles N. Li) (2006). E-mail: ellpjs@


The Korean term yeongeo yeolpung (English fever) refers to the
strong desire to become proficient in English and the heavy investments made to ensure that ones children successfully acquire the
language, a prominent trend in South Korean society today.1 One
phenomenon that bluntly illustrates this is the increasingly common
practice of jogi yuhak (early overseas education), in which many
parents send their children to English-speaking countries so that they
can gain native-speaker-like fluency in the language. Even though
this results in the separation of families, not to mention a great financial burden for the parents, such costs are often seen as necessary
investments for the childs future; according to some statistics, the
number of primary or secondary school students studying abroad has
increased tenfold over the past ten years (Heo Mi-gyeong 2006). The
title of a recent article in the Washington Post summarizes the phenomenon aptly: English is the golden tongue for S. Koreans: Parents
pay a fortune so children can learn. This article illustrates the point
made in the title by reporting the case of a mother who spent
US$210,000 a year for the overseas education of her two sons.
According to the article, 24,000 primary and secondary school students left Korea for jogi yuhak in 2006 (Cho J. 2007). Another example of English fever can be found in the recent boom in the construction of yeongeo maeul (English villages). English villages simulate
an English-speaking society, complete with shops, restaurants, police
stations, banks, hospitals, and even immigration offices, where the
vendors or workers are all native speakers, and which are established
so that students (children and adults alike) can learn and practice
English in an immersion environment without leaving the country.
Constructed and operated by city or provincial governments, there
are at least eight English villages in operation as of 2006, and many
others are being proposed (Kim and Hwang 2006).

1. In this paper, Korea refers to South Korea or the Republic of Korea.



The recent English fever in Korean society may appear incongruent with the image of a country that is well known for its strong
sense of national and ethnic pride. At the same time, however, it may
appear to be a direct reflection of the recent trend of globalization, in
which English has been increasingly established as the worldwide
lingua franca (Crystal 1997). Globalization is not simply about the
economy, technology or culture; it inherently has a linguistic aspect.
When Appadurai (1990, 295) defines globalization as a tension
between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization, we
can easily supplant cultural for linguistic. In this context, Koreas
heavy pursuit of English may appear to be a natural reflection of its
global popularity. However, this perspective can be problematic, as it
lacks an account of the mechanisms through which the global hegemony of English may become manifest in local social relations and
the performative practices of local speakers.
The global spread of English is an important topic that has
received much attention recently, and for our purposes in this paper,
we may identify three different schools of thought in accounting for
global English. The first school views English as a marvelous
tongue for the global age, a victorious language that conquered the
world to take on the role of the standard for international communication. While this view recognizes the importance of local/national
languages, it simply recognizes them as playing the limited function
of identity marking (Crystal 1997), thus presenting English as the language of the practical world that everyone desires. We take this
position to be flawed in that it does not account for local processes of
English adoption, or the what-is-going-on-here, while simply celebrating the triumph of English (Hanson 1997).
The second school, represented by the World Englishes (WE)
paradigm, focuses on local appropriations of English and the ways in
which different Englishes are created around the world (Kachru
1996). Based on a more linguistic perspective, this school argues that
nativization of English and Englishization of local languages may be
seen as signs of local creativity, evidence of how English is adopted
from and adapted to new social and cultural contexts. However, in

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


focusing on the formal aspects of global English and the creativity of

new Englishes, this approach pays less attention to the place of English amidst local relationships of power. Canagarajah (1999), for
instance, criticizes this school as ignoring the political context of the
global spread of English, noting that it urges us to bury our eyes
ostrich-like to the political evils and ideological temptations outside
(Canagarajah 1999, 210).
The third school, which may be termed the critical school of
the global spread of English, is most closely related to the perspective
we adopt in dealing with the English fever in Korea throughout this
paper. This school takes a critical stance towards the global hegemony of English, identifying it as an impenetrable imperial power that
threatens the continuity of local languages and cultures (SkutnabbKangas 2003). While some theses under this model of linguistic imperialism have been criticized for their deterministic assumptions and
conclusions (Phillipson 1992; Pennycook 2000), this school provides
an important basis for the awareness that the status of English as an
international language is not merely a natural consequence of the
hegemony of English-speaking countries, but a social construction
that is established and propagated by both native speakers of English
and non-native speakers who adopt English locally (Pennycook 2003,
2007). This perspective is crucial for understanding the Korean situation, we argue, as it points out that the increasing influence of English in Korean society does not simply mirror a global trend; it must
be deeply rooted in the question of how English is taken up, how
people use English, why people choose to use English (Pennycook
2001, 62). That is, an account of the Korean English fever requires an
analysis of both the global spread of English and its local situatedness.
The aims of this paper are to describe, analyze, and discuss the
phenomenon of English fever in Korean society. The main claim that
we will make in the paper is that English fever should be seen neither as a blind desire for the glorious commodity of English nor as a
cheerful appropriation that nativizes the language of the Other.
Instead, it is a phenomenon that is firmly grounded in the local socio-



political context, yet extends the global hegemony of English onto

Korean society. In other words, we have to examine the conditions
under which English, the lingua franca of the current global society,
is actively learned, adopted, desired, modified, and resignified by
Koreans for their own purposesand how these conditions are
linked to the persistent conditions of inequality and dominance. From
a critical perspective of global politics and culture, this paper shall
examine English fever in Korea as well as revisit the hegemony of
English in the world. In the next section, we begin our discussion by
observing the phenomenon of the global spread of English, which
serves as the backdrop for Korean English fever.

The Global Spread of English

As noted above, English is commonly associated with the Westerndriven globalization of capitalism, culture, and technology. The
spread of English started with the influence of the British Empire during the colonial era. After the Second World War, the rise of the United States as a political, economic, and cultural power accelerated the
status of English as a global lingua franca, as the new empire exercised deterritorialized control through language (Hardt and Negri
2000). Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (1996) summarize the current
situation as follows:
[A]s English is the dominant language of the U.S., the UN, the
World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, many other world policy
organizations, and most of the worlds big businesses and elites
in many countries worldwide, it is the language in which the fate
of most of the worlds citizens is decided, directly or indirectly.
(Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas 1996, 441).

Now, English is a big commodity, writes Phillipson (2000), second

in importance to the British economy after North Sea oil (Phillipson
2000, 90). The Blair Initiative, announced in June 1999, is a clear

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


case of how the United Kingdom makes efforts to increase its share of
the international market of foreign students, also taking advantage of
the current situation in which the stringent visa requirement of U.S.
entry has diverted Asian students to British universities. In 2000, the
then British Minister for Education and Employment confirmed the
importance of English to the British economy and foreign relations by
saying, It makes good economic sense to use English fluency as a
platform to underpin our economic competitiveness and to promote
our culture overseas (cited in Phillipson 2002, 12).
But, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the global spread of
English has to do with how it is adopted as a local language in contexts where English previously did not hold such a status. New varieties of English have already established themselves as a language for
local identity in a number of postcolonial contexts such as India,
Hong Kong, and Singapore (Platt, Weber, and Ho 1984; Kachru 1986;
McArthur 2002; Melchers and Shaw 2003). In addition, an increasing
number of speakers are beginning to use English as a second or
working language, to the extent that there are now more people in
the world who speak English as a second language than as a first language (Crystal 1997).
It must be noted, however, that this does not imply that English
is no longer a language of the colonizer, for despite the active adoption of English in local contexts, inequalities still abound in the way
different varieties of English are valued. Well-documented new varieties of English still suffer from negative stereotypes, as evidenced by
the annual Speak Good English Campaign run by the Singaporean
government (Rudby 2001). Also, traditional native speakers of English (i.e., mainstream speakers of English in what Kachru [1985]
would call inner circle countries, primarily the United States, U.K.,
Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) are regularly privileged over
speakers of new varieties of English or speakers of English as a second language (Widdowson 1994, Brutt-Griffler and Samimy 2001).
This suggests that spontaneous local adoption of English should not
be seen as implying depoliticization of English; on the contrary, we
must seek to understand ways in which local appropriations of Eng-



lish continue to be intertwined with global relations of power, and

how the global hegemony of English is sustained and reproduced
through such processes. Throughout this paper, we will attempt to
describe and discuss the complex dynamics of English in the Korean
context by providing an outline of the English fever and its concomitant local effects.

National Language Ideologies and the Status of English

in Korea
As noted above, the power of global English takes on a particularly
strong significance in Korean society because it stands in stark relief
to the formidable influence of national language ideologies that permeate the nations modern history. The image of Korea as a monolingual nation has played an important part in the building of the modern nation-state (Anderson 1991). Throughout the nations experiences of colonization and modernization, the construct of danil minjok (one people, or racial homogeneity) served as the central ideology (Em 1999). The image of the Korean people united through,
among other things, a common Korean language, is an important element here (Ko 1995). The strong monolingualism of Korea is thus
both an outcome of this imagining of the nation and a persistent
force that reinforces that image.
For this reason, the Korean language is a strong and prominent
symbol of national and ethnic pride for Koreans. The language has
always played an important part in Korean nationalism, for instance
in the resistance towards the Japanese colonial rule. Historical events
such as the Joseoneo Hakhoe (Korean Language Society) Incident,
through which Korean linguists who had been working on the standardization of Korean and the publication of a Korean dictionary
were arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese colonizers, for example, serve as an important chapter in the lore of the independence
movement against the Japanese rule. Based on these roots, linguistic
nationalism is still strong and popular in Korean society, as is often

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


found in various forms of linguistic purism, which condemns excessive loanwords and language mixing originating from influences
of other languages (Park N. 1989; Heo 1994).
Despite the prevalence of such nationalistic language attitudes,
however, the importance of English as symbolic capital has been on
the rise throughout Koreas modern history. English has always been
considered a means for upward social mobility since the late nineteenth century when the first schools for English language teaching
were opened in Korea. The importance of English became more evident in the period of 1945-1948, during which a transitional military
government of U.S. armed forces was established in the southern half
of the peninsula after the collapse of the Japanese colonial rule. Korean translators with skills in English who could mediate between
American military personnel and the Korean public occupied important positions within this government, to the extent that it was also
called a tongyeok jeongbu (translation government) by some (Ko
1995). It was thus no accident that the native Korean government
that was subsequently established maintained a close political and
cultural alignment with the United States and its language, English.
Henderson notes, for example, that the first Korean president, Syngman Rhee, was clearly aware of the political value of English and the
pro-American stance that it indexes, when he points out that Rhee
went to missionary schools like Pai Chai [Baejae] less for their
Christianity than to look for political position through English (Henderson 1968, 207. Cited in Cumings 1997, 157). While some of the
regimes that succeeded Rhees varied slightly in the extent to which
they adopted nationalist positions, the influence of the United States
on Korean politics, economy, military affairs, and culture remained
essentially unchanged. This created a foundation upon which English
increasingly became a language of importance, even as Koreans;
everyday lives remained strongly monolingual and the Korean language served as a symbol of national and ethnic identity. The complex relationship between English and Korean, then, has its origins in
the symbolic role these languages played in the process of modern
nation building.



English in Koreas Globalization Drive

The status of English has received an even stronger boost since the
1980s, when Korea started to make efforts to improve its tainted
national image from its long years of dictatorship and establish a
competent position within the global market. The Korean government pushed its citizens to be more proficient in English communication. For instance, the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic
Games, two major international events hosted by Korea, were presented by the Korean government in terms of a call for citizens to
gain a global mindset, and to be equipped with important characteristics of globality, one of which is the ability to speak English. Thus,
Baik (1992) comments that a new period of contact between English
and Korean was marked by the declaration that Seoul was to be the
host city for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games.
Ordinary Koreans began to feel the imminent need to learn and speak
English (Baik 1992, 26). While it would obviously be problematic to
attribute the hegemonic status of English to these two sporting events
alone, Baiks comment does make an important point: that such
international events (and others that followed) were clinched by the
Korean government as important symbolic resources for the construction of a highly specific connection between globalization, modernization, and English. That is, participation on the global stage was
imagined as necessarily mediated by the global language of English,
which no doubt served as a crucial ideology for shaping the meaning
of the English language in Korean society.
This ideological construction of English has continued by the
governments drive for globalization which took place since the mid1990s. In 1995, the government adopted segyehwa (globalization)
as its slogan, focusing more explicitly on internationalization and
undertaking a series of neoliberal reforms geared towards a more
open adoption of market principles designed to enhance Koreas
global competitiveness (Kim S. 2000). Under the banner of segyehwa,
government officials and businessmen were strongly advised to
actively participate in various international organizations and assume

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


key positions there. In addition, the government advised Korean

firms to undertake joint projects with the worlds leading industries
and expand overseas production in order to keep up with global
trends in high-tech development and to increase exports (Yoo 1995).
The governments new policy was matched with corporate catchphrases such as segye gyeongyeong (global management) of Daewoo, one of the major conglomerates known as jaebeol (chaebol). In
the 2000s, several free economic zones were developed in the areas
of Incheon, Busan, and Gwangyang, along with a free international
city on the southern island of Jeju, in order to establish the country
as an economic hub of the East Asian region. To attract foreign
investors and capital flow, economic activities in these zones were
supported in various ways such as special tax incentives and deregulation of employment and labor laws, as well as development of new
airport and seaport facilities (Park B. 2005).
English again figured prominently in this nationalistically-driven
globalization or utilitarian nationalism. For example, it was advertised that local government offices in the free economic zones would
accept official documents in English so that foreign companies could
conduct their business with Korean governmental offices (Son 2001).
Plans were drafted to strengthen the English skills of the local residents of the proposed free economic zones as well, including proposals to allow local students to attend international schools or begin
English immersion programs in non-English subjects (Park B. 2005;
Lee Jong-gyu 2005). Such efforts were often characterized as yeongeo
inpeura (English infra structure), highlighting the economic value
of the English language as having equal status to material facilities
that may serve as a basis for economic development (Son 2001). In
this context, in 1998 a writer named Bok Geo-il suggested that English should be established as the official language of Korea so that it
could eventually replace Korean as a mother tongue (Bok 1998), a
proposal that caused bitter controversy.
National educational policy is another domain through which
ideologies of English are reproduced and circulated. Through the
sixth National Curricula, introduced in 1995, a shift in English lan-



guage teaching was implemented, from the previous emphasis on

grammatical knowledge towards communicative fluency (Kwon
2000; Shin H. 2007). Another change was the introduction of yeongeo
jogi gyoyuk (early English education) under the seventh National
Curricula: since 1997, English language education has been enforced
starting at an earlier age, at third grade in elementary school, four
years earlier than what the previous policy had mandated (Lee 2004).
These policy changes were all implemented with the explicit goal of
preparing citizens to participate with confidence in the global marketplace and increasing the nations international competitiveness. In
April 2007, then President Roh Moo-hyun corroborated the governments view of English by saying, English is a must in order to catch
up with the stream of globalization. The biggest competitive edge
that Finland and other rapidly-growing advanced countries have is
English-speaking people (Korea Herald 2007). It is quite likely that
the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-2013), well-known for its
strong neoliberal political stance, will continue this trend during his
presidency, pushing for more English classes in schools under the
college level, and possibly introducing English immersion programs
so that all English classes in high schools will be taught only in
These developments in the context of globalization, which were
widely reported prominently in the media, no doubt contributed to
the perception that English has more than ever become an important
international language. Such changes were not only actual policies
through which the Korean government attempted to adapt to the
changing global economy, but also symbolic events that created the
image of English as a necessary resource for making Korea accessible
to the world.

English in Higher Education and the Job Market

The governments emphasis on English naturally has led to and was
supported by the growing importance of English in higher education

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


and the job market. For instance, since the late 1990s, a minimum
score or higher on standardized English tests such as TOEFL (Test of
English as a Foreign Language) or TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) became a requirement for both college
entrance and graduation in many universities. Again, these changes
reflect an assumption that English has become an indispensable skill
for competition in the global context. According to one university
staff member, in this age of internationalization and globalization,
TOEIC and TOEFL are now more important than any other core
courses (Park H. 1995).
Many universities also increasingly adopt English as a language
of instruction so that students will be more exposed to the language.
For example, Korea University became well known for its heavy
investments in English, pressuring faculty members to lecture in English. It has been reported that the university will increase the ratio of
classes taught in English to 50% by 2012. Yonsei University followed
suit by announcing that it would push for a plan that 40% of all
lectures would be taught in English by 2010 (Bak 2006). Sogang University explored such ideas as staffing dormitories with native speakers of English (Cho C. 2005), as it is believed that this will force
students to speak and interact in English, making them more skilled
in the language.
This is perhaps a consequence of the fact that English competence has become an important criterion for decisions regarding
employment or promotion in jaebeol corporations, where trends in
the Korean job market often find their origins. For instance, TOEIC
has been used widely by such corporations as a measure of an applicants English language skills since the mid-1990s when they started
to pursue more active global expansion. Further, since the early
2000s, companies have begun to adopt a wider range of means to
evaluate job seekers English communicative competence such as
oral interviews or group discussions conducted in English, for after
years of emphasizing the importance of TOEIC, many employees
have achieved uniformly high scores, necessitating additional bases
for selection (Han 2003; Kim J. 2005). In addition, major corporations



regularly test the English language competence of their employees

throughout their career. Choi Soyoung (2002) shows that over 90%
of workers in large private manufacturing and exporting industries
are continuously tested on their English.
This emphasis on English, however, does not necessarily mean
that English is being used widely in the workplace. Numerous studies
have shown that, despite the emphasis on English in the business
environment, the amount of English actually used in relation to work
is still relatively small (McTague 1990; Choi S. 2002). This suggests
that communicative competence in English is not so much an actual
resource needed for survival in the global workplace, but an index of
an ideal employee in the global economy; regardless of the actual
tasks one needs to carry out in the workplace, being able to communicate confidently in English is taken to be a sign that the worker is
well positioned within the modern world and worthy of a company
that aspires to expand globally.
This shows that English in the Korean job market is used primarily for gatekeeping purposes. The Korean worker constantly
needs to adapt to what is stated by employers as requirements of an
ideal employee. As we have noted above, with the standards of competence in English constantly being upgraded, English serves as a
mechanism for powerful corporations to control who will have access
to opportunities and privileges. These trends pressure university students and white collar workers to invest an enormous amount of
financial and material resources and time into studying English. Students anxiety about securing employment in an extremely competitive job market leads them to place greater importance on studying
English than their subject of major. Also, according to one newspaper
report, nearly 70% of office workers spend their time after work in
further self-development, most of whom are studying English (Lim
2006). Of course, through such investments in English, Korean workers do gain greater access to the symbolic resource of English, and
this does open up possibilities for active appropriation. However, it
should be noted that such possibilities are also constrained by ideologies of what is required of an ideal worker in the age of globaliza-

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


tionan ideology ultimately constructed through the discourses of

the government and major corporations.

The Fever for Extracurricular English

The ultimate domain in which the English fever is thrown into starkest relief is the area of English language education for children. As in
other East Asian countries, education of children is seen as a matter
of paramount importance, since it is believed by parents to be a real
basis upon which their children can secure the prestige and resources
required for making a good living as adults. For this reason, many
parents go to great lengths to provide their children with the right
educational opportunities (Seth 2002). This zeal on the part of
parents, coupled with the strong perception that good competence in
English is of utmost importance for a successful life, leads to a heated
pursuit of the language that lies at the heart of the English fever.
Perhaps the most extreme and perverted example of this is the
tongue surgery that some parents have their children undergo
(Demick 2002). The purported efficacy of this surgery, which is supposed to lengthen the childs tongue by cutting away a thin band of
tissue, thereby enabling the child to pronounce the rhotic sound of
English with ease, of course has absolutely no scientific basis, and for
this reason some critics see it as a serious violation of childrens
human rights (National Human Rights Commission of Korea 2003).
While tongue surgery may still be a relatively rare and extreme
example, there are plenty of other aspects of the education market
that demonstrate the English fever. As a TOEFL score is required for
admission at some universities and high schools, many Korean students take the test, contributing to the fact that Koreans make up
20% of all TOEFL takers in the world. The Chosun Ilbo reported that
middle and high school students made up 70-80% of the approximately 130,000 Korean TOEFL testees in 2006 (Won 2007). The
general distrust toward the public education system and the need to
outdo others have also produced a huge private education market



which caters to a large number of curricular and extracurricular subjects in various modes, and English is the single most important area
within this market. According to a report by the Samsung Economic
Research Institute, Korean families spent US$15.6 billion on Englishlanguage tutoring in 2006 alone (Cho J. 2007). Here, the options for
after-school English instruction include hakseupji (worksheet) programs (which consist of working on practice questions on worksheets supplemented with regular guidance by a worksheet teacher),
private English institutes, and individual or group tutoring (Park and
Abelmann 2004). With the introduction of English as an elementary
school subject in 1997, yeongeo yuchiwon (English-only kindergartens) with native-speaker staff are thriving as well, despite the
fact that they are often twice or three times more expensive than
regular kindergartens.
Another prominent option is to send children overseas. In addition to eohak yeonsu (short term English study abroad), jogi yuhak
(early overseas education) is on the rise, as noted above. For parents who feel that competence in English is a crucial basis for future
opportunities, separation of families and the great financial cost may
be seen as an acceptable burden. In fact, sending children overseas is
often considered to be the most desirable option for childrens English language learning for the following reasons. Firstly, many Koreans hold the belief that the best way a Korean can learn to speak
English fluently is to be immersed in an English-only environment,
where they can be in contact with native speakers of English, who
are imagined to be ideal model speakers of good English. For this
reason, leaving the monolingual environment of Korea and moving to
English-speaking countries is seen as an ideal option. Secondly, the
experience of studying abroad supposedly inculcates in the child a
sense of cosmopolitanism as well as a certain image of prestige, for
the mere fact that the childs family could afford to send him or her
overseas already indicates a privileged background. Indeed, affluent
members of Korean society have more resources and connections to
send their children to costly English kindergartens or abroad, which
in turn may provide them with a better chance at securing better

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


jobs, thus reproducing and reinforcing class difference (Bourdieu and

Passeron 1977/1990). Koreans are generally well aware of this
inequality, and for this reason, efforts such as jogi yuhak are often
criticized on the grounds that they contribute to the reproduction of
class relations and social inequalities as well as the dollar drain.
One area in which this class anxiety is manifest politically is the
construction boom of the English villages discussed above. English
villages were political projects rather than linguistic ones from its
inception, as they were designed to specifically deal with the dilemma faced by parents who could not afford to send their children overseas due to financial reasons. Many English villages are designed to
be a perfect replica of a (Western) English-speaking society, which
are located at citizens doorsteps. They purportedly provide everyone
with easy access to quality English learning environment. They were
first proposed during the 2002 nationwide election of city and provincial officials by two prominent candidates, who recognized the
importance of appealing to the desire of parents to secure effective
and affordable English language learning opportunities. Their campaigns explicitly aimed at voters who may have felt disgruntled that
they were not able to provide adequately for their children by sending them overseas. For instance, on June 3, 2002, Son Hakgyu, one of
the candidates for the governors seat of Gyeonggi-do province, ran
an advertisement on the first page of major newspapers, directly
addressing parents who were worried about their childrens English
language learning. The advertisement claimed that Son understood
how sending your child overseas is too costly, and not sending your
child breaks your heart, and then promised to build an English village where one can live with foreigners speaking only English, so
that your children can receive an English education that is as practical as sending them overseas (Son 2002; Kim Seon-ju 2002). In the
following years, the idea of English villages became so popular that
more than ten candidates proposed new English villages in the following 2006 election (Kim and Hwang 2006). As a result, as of 2007
there are numerous English villages in operation in Seoul, Gyeonggi,
Incheon, and other places, with more soon to follow.



However, the operation of English villages faces many problems.

The two villages run by Gyeonggi-do province, for example, had a
deficit of US$22 million in 2006, mainly because of the exorbitant
cost of construction and maintenance, but also because of low usage
by citizens (Hong 2007); it is reported that only 3.6% of the elementary and middle school students in Gyeonggi-do province had attended one of the villages during the period between August 2004 and
August 2006 (Hong 2006). This brings into question whether the idea
of English villages truly connects with the real concerns and situations of ordinary Koreans. Rather, this episode underscores that what
Koreans are really seeking through learning English is not linguistic
competence per se, but the social and economic advantages that can
be gained through the symbolic capital of English. Therefore, English
villages, which do not carry the prestige of studying overseas, may
never be seen as a viable alternative to jogi yuhak.
This is also the case with other efforts purported to fill the class
divide in English language learning, such as the recent establishment
(in April 2007) of the third channel of the Educational Broadcasting
System (EBS) that focuses on English language teaching. While even
Koreas president Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007) expressed hope that
the launch of the channel would help deal with the problem of
unequal access to resources for language learning (Shin J. 2007), this
again misses the class implication that underlies the dissatisfaction of
Koreans. In the Korean context, competence in English is sought not
as a linguistic skill, but as a form of distinction (Bourdieu 1986), and
for this reason, populist alternatives to English language learning
aimed at addressing the class divide cannot resolve the problem of
inequality, because ironically, they in fact reproduce that divide by
marking their users as lacking access to more prestigious opportunities for learning English.

The Language Politics of English Fever in South Korea


Conclusion: English and the Structure of Global and

Local Inequalities
The discussion above shows how the Korean English fever must be
seen as a phenomenon that is deeply embedded within local structures of social power. For instance, the place of English within the
educational market connects in many ways to the unique role that
systems of educational qualifications have played in the nations
modernization process. The Korean zeal for education has contributed enormously to the countrys social development and economic growth. It created a more equitable society and was a driving
force for the countrys emergence out of poverty to become an industrialized country. However, it is derived from a traditional value system that equates social status with ones educational degree and the
reputation of the schools that one attended. In this situation, an enormous percentage of family income is being spent on education, therefore ultimately contributing to class structure and inequalities. English, as we have seen above, is a new addition to this equation; as
English language learning has become a centerpiece of government
policy, corporate strategy, and the education system, it also comes to
function as a crucial link in the reproduction of such local relations of
power and inequality.
But another important aspect of English is that its local meaning
is mediated by its status as a global language and the global-level
relationships that it marks. In the Korean case, English is inextricably
tied with the hegemony of the United States and the global economy
which is imagined to operate through English. That is, the local
meaning of English is not only constructed locally, but builds upon
the global meaning of English and reproduces it locally at the same
time. In other words, through English, what is reproduced is not only
local class relationships, but the privileges of native speakers of English over non-native speakers such as Koreans, the power of the U.S.
over Korea, and the dominance of the neoliberal order of the global
economy. While the privileged few are able to justify their positions
by aligning themselves with these global sources of hegemony, the



majority of Koreans without such privilege (and Korea as a whole)

can only be subordinated within a hierarchy of powernot only
locally but globally as well. This, we argue, is precisely a way
through which global structures of power come to be reproduced on
a local level, not through active imposition by the center, but
through local practices of dealing with English. In this sense, the English fever in Korea cannot be simply understood as a direct reflection
of the global hegemony of English, but as its local manifestation
which is mediated by local social relations and structural constraints.
While we took a highly critical stance towards global English
above, we also acknowledge the importance of English learning for
its utility in international trade, international exchanges, and its role
as a vehicle for the circulation of new ideas, cultures, forms of
knowledge and sensibilities. In this sense, we do not intend to dismiss the Korean English fever as an ignorant, self-destructive act. For
individual Koreans, efforts to learn English are ultimately about
appropriating the indexical value of English in the modern world,
and insofar as they make such agentive choices they should not be
seen as dupes that collude in their own subordination. But it must
also be recognized that this appropriation is not of the kind that
instantly liberates the speaker, for their efforts to secure English is
constrained by material forces that define who has access to better
channels for learning English. Therefore, we claim that the Korean
English fever can only aggravate the class divide between the
English-rich haves and English-poor have-nots (Choi S. 2007)
and reinforce the global inequalities that Korea as a nation faces. In
this context, we conclude that the Korean English fever is best understood as a local-level projection of global-level inequalities; and that
such inequalities are an outcome of working relations of class and

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danil minjok
eohak yeonsu
jogi yuhak
segyehwa gyeongyeong

tongyeok jeongbu
yeongeo jogi gyoyuk
yeongeo maeul
yeongeo yeolpung
yeongeo yuchiwon